One of the missed opportunities of my life occurred by the time I was 21 years old. By then I was an outdoor lover and a young man who craved to hunt and fish for exotic (to me) animals and fish in far off places.
While they were abundant, they became an important wild game meal for protein starved settlers. In many areas they faded into history; in others, they now are listed as game birds with stable populations that allow a regulated harvest.
Little did I know at one time this history was played out right here in Newton County. Much of the county was a part of the historic tall grass prairie and as happened elsewhere their numbers increased temporarily, then dwindled to extinction.
But the extirpation didn’t happen here until 1973. In 1974 DNR biologists failed to hear or spot any prairie chickens on their leks in McClellan township, just south of Lake Village.
Leks are also known as booming grounds. It’s an area where male chickens go each spring to display, strut and vocalize to impress female prairie chickens. The same leks are used year after year dating back as far as anyone can remember. Though the DNR purchased 640 acres as a Prairie Chicken Refuge, the final lek in Indiana was actually on what was then the Karlock Ranch, now a part of The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands property.
In 1951, when I was just two years old, there were 17 active leks across the northern part of the county. Historical accounts of early life in Newton County, when market hunting was a common occupation, accounts of game harvested and sold always included prairie chickens.
Had I known of this as a young man in high school, I’d have been there, sneaking to one of the last remaining active leks, hiding hoping to at least spot one of Indiana’s disappearing bird treasures. There was once discussions of reintroducing them on the TNC lands, but I haven’t heard of movement on that plan in years.
That’s why I was so intrigued on a recent trip to Nebraska. While eating lunch with Carol Schlegel, tourism director for Red Willow County, headquartered in McCook, my interest peaked when she mentioned their Prairie Chicken tours, held each spring.
The program started in 2014 and the number of participants doubled last spring with travelers from across the country and several countries from around the globe attending. Reservations are required. It’s actually an easy, two day experience. The night before your turn in the trailer, you attend a program learning about prairie chickens and what to expect in the morning. Then an abbreviated overnight stay (I recommend the Horse Creek Inn), then off to the lek in the morning. Check out www. prairiechickendancetours.com.